3 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before I Took on School Debt

If I had it to do over again, I would have given myself some context for how much money $20,000 or $30,000 really was. I would have spent some time thinking through each of my options, to weigh whether this was a worthy investment or not.
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As the author of a book about chasing your dreams, and a happy dream-chaser myself, I have conversations with people, on virtually a daily basis, about what they dream of doing, what's getting in their way, and what it would take for them to take the leap and create a life they actually enjoy living.

I can't tell you how often these conversations end with someone admitting they wish they could change their current vocation or position or lifestyle in some way, but feel powerless to do so because they're racked with school debt.

Honestly, I wish I could say I have no idea what that feels like. But I do.

I finished graduate school in 2009 with over $50,000 in debt.

According to American Student Assistance, I'm in the top 10 percent for students with my level of education (at least I'm "winning" at something, although I think I'd prefer to win at something different). And since I'm not using the degree I worked so hard to achieve in any specific sense, my predicament makes me wonder:

Was it worth it?

I'm inclined to say, "yes." I'm an advocate of education, and firmly believe I wouldn't be the woman I am today without the experiences I gained in pursuing my two degrees. But I also find the conversation about the debt we so willing take on to go to school really compelling.

And while I'm not sure I would change the past, even if I could, there are a few things I wish I would have known before I took on such a huge burden of debt.

First, I wish I would have known school debt cannot be compartmentalized to one part of my life. When I first signed the paperwork, agreeing to take on the debt for my degrees, I didn't even consider how this would impact other areas of (or other people in) my life. I wasn't considering my someday-husband, or someday-family. I was unattached at the time, and so I saw this burden as a burden I was taking on myself.

I would be responsible for it myself, make the payments myself, and that's all that mattered. It wasn't until I finished school that I realized the boundaries between life and school debt weren't that cut-and dry. There were many things I wanted to do -- places I wanted to commit my time, people I wanted to support, worthy causes I wished to participate in, but couldn't, because of my debt.

Then I met my husband in 2013 and we dated for only a few months before getting engaged. I'll never forget the first time I revealed the slowly dwindling, magic $50,000 number to him. I had sweaty hands and a shaky voice and, although we were engaged, I was honestly nervous this piece of information might change the course of our relationship.

Of course, my fears were unjustified. He barely blinked at the number, and the wedding went on as planned, but that moment stands out as one in my mind that reminded me how the financial burden I took on when I was young and unattached was not only mine to carry.

Second, I wish I would have known how a degree isn't the only way to get an education.
I don't know if this would have changed my decision about the institutions I attended (which were both phenomenal and both played an integral role in my development), but I just wish I would have considered how far $1,000 could go at a bookstore, or for online courses, or for an apprenticeship.

If I had done that, I might have taken into account less expensive options. No matter what I chose, at least it would have been an informed choice.

Instead, I was set on going to "the best" universities (relative to my understanding of "the best"). I didn't even consider if or how my choice of institution would realistically impact my long-term career goals. Did I need to go to "the best institutions" to do what I'm doing? I'm not sure.

Again, I can't say for certain that considering other options would have changed my mind. I just wish I would have taken all options into account.

From where I stand now, I'm not sure my degrees have paid for themselves.

I wish I would have known this was not Monopoly money.

I came from a family culture where college was expected. My dad has two advanced degrees, my mom graduated from college, and even our extended family members have placed a high value on education. There was never any question if I had what it took to go to college; and never any limitation about where I should consider going. The sky was the limit.

On the one hand, I'm indescribably grateful for that mentality.

I know not everyone lives with this luxury, and so I feel grateful for the way the support of my parents gave me the stability I needed to reach, dream, achieve and grow. The only problem was, when it came down to sign the paperwork for each of my loans, I was living in "dream" land instead of "reality" land.

The $20,000 or $30,000 price tag didn't seem like real money to me. It just seemed like numbers on a page.

And I just figured this is "what people do" to go to college.

So if I had it to do over again, I would have given myself some context for how much money $20,000 or $30,000 really was. I would have spent some time thinking through each of my options, to weigh whether this was a worthy investment or not. I may very well have made the same choice I made, but at least I would have done so knowingly.

So now what?

If you're anything like me (or one of the 12 million other Americans who are trapped by school debt) you're thinking, "Great. Good information. Except I'm already in debt. I can't go back and change what I chose. So what do I do now?"

I hear from young (and not-so-young) people all the time who are asking these questions:

  • I'm in a dead-end job I hate that's promising to pay off my debt in 10 years. Should I stay?
  • I want to go to Africa and work on a clean water initiative, but I have loans. Should I defer them?
  • I want to quit my full-time job to start my own business, but I still have school debt. Do I have to wait?
  • I want to move overseas. How am I supposed to do that with this debt looming over my head?

These are questions I've asked myself, too, and honestly, I'm not a financial expert, so I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer. But, in case it helps, here are a few things I've tried.

First, I've worked a few jobs I didn't love that helped me make progress toward paying off my loans. I've learned, in these seasons, to find things in my life, besides my job, that fuel me creatively and build a bridge to what I dream of doing.

I remind myself this job is not forever, but just for a season.

I've also chosen taken on extra work for short seasons, putting hobbies and social life on the back burner for a time. During these times, I remind myself that my hard work will pay off later. I think about how, once I'm out of debt, I'll be able to enjoy my life, and my vocation, in a whole new way.

Finally, my husband and I are careful to live under our means.

We could move into a bigger apartment, but we don't. We could buy new furniture, but we don't. We could update our wardrobes, but we don't. I'm not saying this to brag. I'm saying this to paint a realistic picture of what it looks like to attack the debt we've acquired.

Perhaps this will make us consider all our options before taking on new debt in the future.

Do you have debt? What are you doing about your school loans?

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